Cave Fever

Luray Caverns was discovered 140 years ago by a fortune hunter from New York who dreamed of hitting it big.

Benton Stebbins was an inveterate job-hopper. Farmer, carpenter, schoolteacher, newspaper publisher, photographer—he’d tried them all, but none had stuck. More importantly, none had provided him with the fortune he so desperately hoped to achieve. But in 1878, after spending just 10 days in the town of Luray, he finally had the answer: caves.

Stebbins was born in upstate New York in 1825. He had lived in several area towns before moving to Maryland, and then on to Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, always looking to build a business, but never settling on a single successful venture. Married twice and divorced once, he fathered eight children. When he set out for tiny Luray (population 500) he was 53 years old—he had heard the railroad was coming to town, and he knew where the railroad moved in, money soon followed. 

Stebbins had a vision: He would find a magnificent cavern and create a booming tourist attraction. It was well known that the soft Shenandoah limestone around Luray was riddled with sinkholes and small hollows—didn’t it stand to reason something larger could be found? Caverns were all the rage among fashionable and worldly East Coasters at the time, and they’d pay good money to see them. Economic proof of concept came from nearby Weyer’s Cave, outside Staunton, which had been discovered in 1802 and was then doing a brisk business. Everyone wanted to get underground and experience the world of stalactites (which hang “tight” to the ceiling) and stalagmites (which rise “mightily” from the ground).

Stebbins set out to find himself a cave. He recruited Andrew Campbell, a local tinsmith, and his nephew Billy Campbell, to aid in his search. That summer, the trio scoured the hillsides outside town each weekend, sifting through rocks and looking for fissures that might indicate a cave below.

They were the laughingstock of Luray. People called them “cave rats” and “phantom chasers.” Robert Gurnee compiled the history of this search in his book Discovery of Luray Caverns, Virginia, while serving as President of the New York-based Explorers Club in the mid-1970s. He records a local asking Stebbins: “Have you thought of tying a string to the leg of a bat and following it home?” 

After about a month without success, a discouraged Stebbins was ready to pick up stakes and leave Luray entirely. He even put an ad in the paper announcing the close of the photography business he had opened when he first moved to town. On Aug. 13, 1878, Stebbins and company set out for what they agreed would be their last caving foray. They brought along Andrew’s cousin James Mobisett and 13-year-old nephew John Campbell, called “Quint.” Early on into the day’s search, Billy felt a cool breeze coming from a depression of loose rock on a hillside—a breeze coming from out of the ground.

It took most of the day for the team to dig out an opening big enough to accommodate a man. Andrew was the first to drop through, followed by Quint, both holding onto a rope and candle as they climbed down. Gurnee reports what they found when they finally raised their lights and looked around:

“At eye level there were hundreds of carrot-like formations. On the bottom of each pendant was a drop of water. They looked like tiny diamonds in the reflected candlelight .… the ceiling looked like a pin cushion of formations; the walls glistened, and in front of them was a huge, floor-to-ceiling column.” They had found their cave.

Today, Luray Caverns is the most-visited cavern in America—open 365 days a year, 500,000 people enter its limestone chambers annually. It bills itself as the 12th-largest cave open to the public in the U.S. in addition to being the country’s longest continuously operating cave. It was named a Registered Natural Landmark in 1973. 

The formations that Gurnee described would later be named and known throughout the world. Giant’s Hall, a towering room with larger-than-life columns reaching to a distant ceiling. Dream Lake, a wide but deceptively shallow body of water that serves as a perfect mirror of the stalactites hanging above. Titania’s Veil, a pure crystalline white cascade of flowing rock, as if an icy series of waterfalls were frozen in time. Saracen’s Tent, a massive fringe of folded red rock so thin and delicate that you can see a light shine through from one side to the other. 

But back on the hillside that hot August evening in 1878, Stebbins, Billy and Mobisett were still waiting for Andrew and Quint to return above ground. When the pair finally did, they feigned disappointment, not wanting to share their discovery with the newcomer Mobisett. Gurnee reports that Andrew even called it “nothing but a damned hole in the ground.”

But when Mobisett left to go home, and the original group (plus Quint) was alone together, Andrew shared the good news. Still, the moment called for secrecy. They decided to return later that night to explore the cave more fully. Under cover of darkness, they all lowered themselves down into the earth to marvel at the wonder they had found. The men knew that they would have to buy the land.

Less than a month later, on Sept. 10, a partnership comprised of Benton Stebbins, Andrew Campbell, and William Campbell (Billy’s father) purchased 28 ½ acres of land listed as “Cave Hill” for $17 per acre, a total of $484.50, at a bankruptcy auction held outside Luray’s courthouse. No longer “cave rats,” the group immediately opened the cave to the public; they charged the first visitors 50 cents apiece. Thanks to some timely PR, tourists were soon flocking to Luray from all over the East Coast. 

Within a month, the New York Herald sent not one, but two separate writers to report on the cave. The second Herald writer actually postponed a planned reporting trip to the North Pole so that he could come to Luray. The resulting article gave the cavern its name: “Luray Caverns: Exploration of Wondrous Caverns in Virginia” read the headline. The cave was “destined to become famous as one of the world’s wonders.” Everyone, declared the paper, was catching “cave fever.” On Nov. 6, more than 200 guests attended the cave’s first illumination. Candelabras made from wagon wheels were hung from the ceilings, and 1,000 candles lit the main chamber.

Word spread fast, and soon cave fever became a full-blown epidemic. A professor from Columbia University took samples of stalagmites and brought them back to New York, where they were displayed in a Tiffany’s window on Fifth Avenue. Chief Clerk of the Smithsonian Institution William Rhees visited and wrote that “there is probably no other cave in the world more completely and profusely decorated with stalactitic and stalagmitic ornamentation than that of Luray.” 

In 1880, Luray’s train station was completed, opening the way for even more would-be spelunkers. Elaborate Victorian hotels sprung up in Luray’s downtown (one, the Hotel Laurance, still operates as an upscale boutique hotel today). After disembarking at the station in town, travelers would walk the two miles uphill to the cave entrance—women in full-length dresses, men in suits—or hire a wagon and horse from a local farmer. That year, more than 30,000 visitors paid to enter Luray Caverns: Benton Stebbins had found his fortune.

Just three years after their grand discovery, though, Stebbins and the Campbells would lose ownership of Luray Caverns after the Supreme Court of Virginia ruled their purchase of Cave Hill invalid; they had failed to disclose their discovery to the former owner, a local merchant named Samuel Buracker. Stebbins would move away, and ownership of the cave would revert to Buracker, and later to the newly-formed Luray Caverns Corp. in 1905 (which still owns it today). Over time, the cave would change—the Limair Sanatorium, billed as the world’s first air conditioned building, was built on the site, cooled by drafts from the caves below. 

In 1954, inventor Leland Sprinkle would build and install the Great Stalacpipe Organ, which you can still hear play “Oh, Shenandoah” today resonating from huge hollow stalactites. But Luray Caverns would remain open to visitors each and every day, and so would the spirit of the original Discovery Day, celebrated by the town each year Aug. 13.

There is a moment in Luray Caverns’ modern tours during which the guide stops the group in a narrow passageway. For one long minute, all lights in the cavern are turned off. Visitors experience, for the first time, the total and utter dark one can only find underground. It’s a discovery tinged with danger and full of exhilaration. One imagines it’s just how Benton Stebbins felt.

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